The 'money doesn't matter' myth in education

Maurie Mulheron

For years now we have all heard or read comments that, when it comes to lifting student achievement, money doesn’t matter.

I have collected statements to this effect from a variety of sources and from different countries, including Australia.

As you read them, you will be struck at how the speakers echo each other: the phrasing, the syntax, the vocabulary, all remarkably similar.

But this is not a case of plagiarism, it is part of a deliberate and coordinated attack on public education. In essence, the argument continues, teachers, not the lack of resources, are the problem.

What is worth noting is that not one of the statements following was made by an educator. Indeed, they were all made by politicians, economists and conservative think-tank commentators.

Try this quick test. My challenge to you is to read the 15 examples and identify which ones were uttered by Australian politicians. (No cheating, no search engines, please).

My favourite, by the way, is number 2.

  1. “We spend more than any other state in the country. It ain’t about the money. It’s about how you spend it — and the results.”
  2. “Socrates trained Plato on a rock and then Plato trained Aristotle, roughly speaking, on a rock. So, huge funding is not necessary to achieve the greatest minds and the greatest intellects in history.”
  3. “[There’s] no systematic relationship between school expenditures and student performance.”
  4. “An enormous amount of scientific analysis has focused on how spending and resources of schools relates to student outcomes. It is now commonly believed that spending on schools is not systematically related to student outcomes.”
  5. “Considerable prior research has failed to find a consistent relationship between school spending and student performance, making scepticism about such a relationship the conventional wisdom.”
  6. “We’re spending a lot of money on education, and when you look at the results, it’s not great.”
  7. “In the last decade, we’ve spent more money but have not gotten any better result.”
  8. “The fallacy that resources, facilities and more money are the key to building a successful education system is alive and well in [name of country].”
  9. “However, with no relationship between spending and achievement, and with public debt rising, school budgets must be reviewed to minimise waste and maximise productivity.”
  10. “The relationship between education funding and student outcomes is tenuous.”
  11. “Money is not the issue in education ... there’s always been an obsession with smaller class sizes — which is what the union is most focused on — smaller class sizes, more teachers.”
  12. “Education is not just about money. It’s about values, it’s about teacher quality, curriculum, pedagogy and principal autonomy. That’s where the debate needs to be, not this facile argument about who’s offering more money.”
  13. “There has been a very significant growth in funding to schools but that hasn’t been matched with a clear focus on improving school outcomes.”
  14. “[There is] a belief that just spending more automatically improves educational outcomes and student outcomes. We know for a fact that that is not the case.”
  15. “… we won’t be tricked into thinking that just spending more money automatically improves results.”

How do you think you went?

If you guessed that the last five statements were from Australian politicians, well done. Bonus points if you identified either Christopher Pyne (statements 11 and 12) or Simon Birmingham (13–15) as the speakers.

So, the former and current Federal Education Minister would like to convince us that it is not about money.

If those ministers can convince the stockmarket and the corporate tax avoiders that money doesn’t matter I might, just might, take them seriously.

But there has not been a cash splash. Late last year, the NSW Government released figures, based on federal data, that showed that in the years 2000–2013, just prior to the introduction of the Gonski model, the actual funding increase per student was less than 1 per cent, yet for the same period the economic growth per capita was 1.48 per cent.

We know that schools need to fund classroom resources, textbooks, equipment, release time, aides, specialist literacy and numeracy programs, professional learning, homework centres, transition programs, intensive English tuition, the integration of students with special needs, to meet just some of the most essential needs. The list could go on.

If the Federal Education Minister thinks that he can convince us that money is not essential to meet these needs, then what next?

Perhaps he might suggest we look underneath Aristotle’s rock for the resources.

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